The Linguist

The Linguist 55,4

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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Page 15 of 35 FICTION IN TRANSLATION Joint winner of the Man Booker International Prize, translator Deborah Smith tells Jessica Moore how she rose from a monolingual, 'parochial English' upbringing to achieve linguistic greatness D eborah Smith is nothing if not ambitious. At 28, the joint winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize has not only excelled in her niche field of translating fiction from Korean to English, but has also established a burgeoning not- for-profit publishing company specialising in translations from Asian languages. Graduating with a degree in English literature in 2009, "I decided I wanted to be a literary translator – which sounds ridiculous, looking back on it," Smith laughs. It's hard to argue. At 22, she was monolingual, had barely travelled, and had very few cultural experiences beyond what she describes as her "boringly parochial English background". Neither was she particularly self-confident. Doncaster born and bred, Smith attended her local comprehensive where "my attitude was apathetic. I sat in silence. We weren't always encouraged to be interested; we were just supposed to turn up." She was the first person in her family to go to university – and Cambridge came as a shock. "Other people there seemed to have opinions and know how to talk about them," she says. What Smith had going for her in spades, however, was a love of reading and a desire to take the path less trodden. "I don't come from a literary background. My parents weren't recommending books to me or shaping my tastes." In fact, her hometown – which one of her teachers once cruelly described as "a cultural ZÜxtà expectations black hole" – didn't get a bookshop until she was 17. Smith had to find her own path as a reader. Initially she struggled. "The British fiction I was aware of was the famous stuff, the prize shortlisters – but those books seemed to be really middle class, and perhaps also quite male. And white. And a lot in London. I felt they assumed a shared cultural knowledge or education or background that I found alienating. Fiction from other cultures seemed less 'other' to me than the classic Hampstead novel." They were also exciting: "a glimpse of a world I hadn't experienced". So far, so logical. Throwing herself into Korean, Smith notes drily, was "the next obvious choice". But it was a pragmatic one. "For years, I'd tracked down books in translation and Korean was one of the few source languages I hadn't found. Yet I knew that South Korea was a developed and relatively wealthy country, which presumably had a rich literary scene." So Smith took a punt. "Korean seemed like a useful niche, rather than doing French or German, where I would have had a lot more competition." An audacious plan Far-fetched as her plan seems, it was canny. According to research conducted on behalf of Man Booker, sales of translated fiction have grown by 96% over the past 15 years, while the overall fiction market has stagnated. Sales of translated Korean books in the UK specifically have risen from 88 copies in 2001 to 10,191 in 2015.

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